NICOLE WASN'T LOOKING FORWARD to the long hot summer at her parents' French winery.
They were isolated from the town and she missed her friends from boarding school. She was filled with feelings she didn't understand. Restless, frustrated, and yearning for male companionship, her emotions churned within her as she reluctantly resigned herself to a very boring summer.
Her father often hired a few field workers to help him trim the vines and stake them for the growing season. Nicole had taken little interest in any of them, as they usually were men from the surrounding countryside or the village; older men with families. But one fine day in late May there stood before her a young man of about eighteen who took her breath away. He was tall, dark and handsome, as she had often dreamed about. His dark curly hair framed a face with finely chiselled cheekbones, a high forehead, and a strong chin. When he smiled, his even white teeth contrasted sharply with his swarthy complexion. She stood transfixed before him as he said, "Mademoiselle, I am Marcel. I am here to work for your father, if you would be so kind as to direct me?"
"You are going to work here?" Nicole asked in wonder.
"Oui; that is what I said."
Nicole collected herself long enough to say, "Come with me and I will take you to him. My name is Nicole and I live here." She knew she sounded childish and lame but she had no experience, and no sophisticated attitude, to deal with this impressionistic, very handsome young man.
Whether he sensed or saw her shyness he attempted to put her at ease. Truth be known, he had never seen anyone as striking as this lovely young woman. She was housed in a voluptuous body; an ample bosom, a very tiny waist, and a well-rounded derriere attached to perfectly shaped legs. He was immediately taken with her and when his eyes met her shining emerald ones, he was lost. All too soon Nicole approached the winery office and saw that her father was inside. She said, "Marcel, this is my father Jacques Freemont, your new employer. I'll leave you two alone. It was nice to meet you, Marcel."
Marcel extended his hand to his new employer and said, "I am here to work, Monsieur."
"Welcome aboard, Marcel."
Nicole wandered out toward the courtyard at the rear of the chateau, her cat Max following behind, meowing loudly to be picked up and cuddled in her arms. She reached down and picked him up, rubbing his ears and stroking his coat. She said, "Max, you'll never guess what happened. I just met the man I'm going to be with. Just you wait and see." The cat purred his answer and Nicole smiled down on him. This was going to be one very wonderful summer.
The winery crew was kept very busy, as there was much work to do preparing the vines, but as the season progressed they were put to work cultivating the ground around the plants. As the leaves appeared, the rows and rows of staked vines formed a veritable rib of greenery groomed to perfection. Nicole helped her mother prepare the noon meal for the workers as well as a late dinner for the hands who lived on the estate. Marcel was kept busy in the distilling room preparing the caskets and vats, which would be used during the harvest. On more than one occasion he had deliberately sought out Nicole's company and had taken the liberty of kissing her long and hard, his passion rising as she succumbed to his caresses. It soon became apparent that they were attracted to one another, so much so that it was all he could do to keep his hands to himself.
During one of these secret meetings Nicole's mother, Carliss, watched the lovers from the second story window of the chateau and became alarmed. The idea that Nicole and Marcel were involved had never crossed her mind. She decided to speak to her husband about what was happening. Jacques was unusually tired that evening, but she still broached the subject of what she had seen and now suspected. He was surprised. It was as though they had not realized that they were in charge of an extremely attractive young woman who had all the assets any man could possibly desire. What had happened to their little girl? She was only fourteen, but they knew that she was physically far more mature than her years.
They agreed that it would be pointless to deny the two the opportunity to be together because in doing so, it would probably bring them closer together. Carliss said, "Jake, Marcel is a struggling young artist trying to earn enough money to continue his studies in Paris, but he has had to abandon his painting during the day in order to earn enough money to get him through the winter. Why don't we commission him to paint a portrait of Nicole? That way they could spend time together but it would be on a more professional plane."
"That sounds like a good idea. I'll ask him if he would like to have her pose for him.
The following day, Marcel was approached by Jacques and immediately agreed to do the portrait. He said, "I welcome the opportunity to paint such a lovely subject, but Monsieur, it will take quite some time. I must paint when the light is just right and I prefer to work outdoors. It may interfere with my work in the winery."
"Don't worry about the winery. We are well ahead of the work and we will be ready for the harvest. I hope you will have the portrait finished by that time?"
"Oh, yes, that gives me almost two months to work with Nicole."
Jacques asked, "Did you bring your supplies with you from Paris?"
"Yes, I did, hoping I would have the opportunity to paint some landscape but to be offered a job doing a portrait. I can't thank you enough."
At supper the next day, Nicole's parents told her of the portrait commission. Her face lit up and she smiled widely as she hugged her mother and father in turn, saying, "Oh, thank you both, what a surprise. Is Marcel that good of an artist? He never mentions how his studies or work is going. Perhaps that is because he hasn't been painting since he arrived. I guess we'll find out soon enough." She laughed and left the room, a distinctive lift to her spirits and a spring in her step.
Jacques and Carliss smiled at one another, glad that they had made Nicole happy. They decided that the setting for the painting should be beside the terrazzo wall in the back courtyard. Carliss had the perfect dress in mind for Nicole to wear, made of off-white cotton, the bodice of which was embroidered in candlewick and trimmed in matching satin ribbon. The skirt was three-tiered with crocheted inserts separating the tiers, the ribbon threaded through the islet holes. Nicole had always sat out in the courtyard with her cat in her lap, and that was how her parents would cherish her when the portrait would finally hang in the great room.